Taissumani, Oct. 11
The Cook-ed Up Peary-odd-ical Dictionary
Those knowledgeable about Arctic exploration history will know that in 1909 a controversy erupted over whether Robert Peary or Frederick Cook was the first to reach the North Pole.
The controversy continues to this day. What is less known is the extent to which the controversy was lampooned in books and magazines. That controversy, and the lampooning, eventually included the possibility that neither of them reached the pole.
Among the odder of the books to capitalize on the subject was “The Cook-ed Up Peary-Odd-Ical Dictionary, published in Boston in 1910.
The ridiculing of explorers begins with the dedication: “To the humiliated American public who in the past have contributed to Arctic exploration an unbroken line of leaders whose modesty has been as conspicuous as their achievements, whose devotedness of purpose has been as unquestioned as their daring and whose nobility of character in the face of repeated failure to reach the ultimate goal of Northern exploration has brought honor to their countrymen, this book is dedicated.”
One section professes to provide biographies of people associated with the controversy.
Most of the book is, as promised in the title, a series of definitions of words relevant to the controversy. Here are some samples:
Ethnologists – Scientific ‘Gents’ who study the habits of Eskimos by reading Arctic explorer’s [sic] reports.
Expedition Party – One that goes so far North no one can prove it.
Bear – A fur overcoat before the stuffing is removed.
Barter – Arctic explorer’s term for swapping a 12 cent knife for $300 worth of furs.
Ivory – An Eskimo’s loose change. Worth a tin spoon per 20 pounds in Northern Greenland, and worth a gold spoon per pound in New York.
Whale – A successful oil producer. Like all the rest of ‘em – his record is fishy. Blows a lot but a good harpoon will make him blubber in a minute.
Winter – One of the longest and most fashionable seasons at the Pole, extending from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31.
Zero – Nothing. For example, “It was below zero when we found the North Pole.” Hence, both explorers agree in this degree, that it was less than nothing when they found the Pole.
Justice – What both Cook and Peary have come back after, although when asked what they found at the North Pole both agreed in saying: ‘Just ice.’
It is not only explorers who are poked fun at in this dictionary. Inuit take their fair share of ribbing as well.
Indeed, much of the controversy was based on the testimony of the Inuit who accompanied Peary north, compared with that of the two young men who accompanied Cook. It became important for each explorer to produce the testimony of the Inuit who accompanied him. And so a little poem introduces the book
“Whate’er you do
Where’er you gaux,
You must produce
Eskimo is defined more than once in the dictionary. One “definition” notes that the plural of the word is “Eskimoses.” The entry reads:
Eskimo – plural, Eskimoses. From Icelandic Eski, meaning to guide or lead, and Moses, one who leads the people. For example, “The Eskimoses led the chosen explorers to the promised pole!”
Another definition says more about the explorers than it does about the Inuit or Eskimos, and that is certainly its purpose. It reads:
Eskimo – A fuzzy biped who does all the work and gets little glory. A Polar easy mark who swaps $150 worth of ivory for a non-union box of matches. Liars when they go with Cook (see Peary charges). Truthful fellows when they go with Peary (also see Peary reports). A privileged race that can swap wives without getting their names in the papers.
The dictionary even offers a definition of Inuit, albeit spelled incorrectly:
Innuit – An Eskimo’s name for his race. From ‘in,’ ... and from Fr. ‘nuit,’ meaning night. Hence, one who is in the dark much of the time.
In a “Who’s Hoot” section at the end of the book, perhaps the most biting entry is for Donald MacMillan (spelled McMillan here), who accompanied Peary over the ice part way to the Pole, and was forever after a Peary supporter:
McMillan, Donald B. - ...One of those who also ran – back. Wanted to make the polar dash with Peary but got cold feet. Was unqualified to go to Pole as he was expert at taking observations. Celebrated for firm belief that Cook never reached Pole – a conviction he is said to have expressed shortly after conference with Peary…
This slim volume, which poked fun at the polar controversy of 1909, is now a collectors’ item. I am happy to have a copy on my bookshelf.